My dear friend Rappard,
Here, too, are some of the poems by Jules Breton, if you don’t have them I’m sure they’ll really touch you. Today, or rather in the last few days, I’ve painted a study of the loom of which you have the drawing.1 Am also searching for the colour of the winter garden. But it’s already a spring garden — by now. And it’s changed a lot.2
Velvety, dusted with gold, the stubble fields
Rimmed by fire, float within the gloom;
Beyond the black roofs skimmed by its light
Sinks, radiant, high summer’s dazzling star.
In a great burst it falls, pouring its treasure forth:
And the blue zenith casts a wondrous light
Upon the road, where, in the fragrant breeze,
With leaping, whirling step they sing a roundelay.
Lit by the flames and in the burning dust,
The women dance, hand in joyful hand,
But seated apart, the fairest of them dreams;
She sits alone... and bites her morbid lip,
As one might see, pale, among a field of vetch,
The sensitive mimosa shrink and pine.
When the cloud
Trails tattered wisps of gold
And spreading all at once
Its splendid rays
The sun pours down its benison;
A fiery nimbus
Plays about your hair
Your softly curling braids.
The rose-pink ray
Your fraying, ragged dress,
Glides — blazes,
Your noble beauty in its flame.
Descends, slowly expands;
The air gives off
The wholesome scent of wheat.
The clump of elms
Redden their mingled boughs
And with its hard outline
Stands out against the softness of the corn.
The fire burns lower now
Suffuses evening’s balm;
And all grows hazy
Full of smoke
Like a great thurible.
The meagre flock
Its homeward way to rest
And the toads
Their gentle, touching song.
Then far away
The church bell tolls
Its single steady note
And its winged
Rises and falls on every side.
The note strikes
Purer than when in evening woods
We hear the huntsman
Blow on his rousing horn.
How much more Love I this place
Than the high peaks,
This plain so humble
Yet so full
Of God’s abounding love!
Now you get a little rebuke — which is — when I was with you this winter,5 you were against ‘enthusiasm’ — I mean, said something that Jaap Maris said, I don’t know what, about enthusiasm — which he, that is Jaap, didn’t exactly apply in his life, thank God — even though he may have said something of the sort relating to some special case or other — he having carried on painting in all circumstances. Then the birds simply shouldn’t sing and the painters not paint if they were supposed to think about whether they weren’t too passionate.
Now read Les Cigales — and — I’ll simply say nothing more.
Dawn (To Corot)6
I took a narrow path, at dawn, among the wheat,
Where droplets falling from its heavy-hanging ears
Drench him who brushes past;
And as I wandered, called back long-lost dreams.
Ah! Who has not bemoaned a splintered bough,
Like the grey willows when men cut them down,
That make so soft a sound, quenching with their tears
The thirst of bindweed twined about their feet!
And then I felt my heart, from which I banished words,
Turn tender in the subtle, pale and changing light,
Just like a sickly tree that’s watered by the rain.
And now behold, bursting upon the silver sky
The joyful lark, that sees, emerging
From the misty east, the first pink fleck.
Autumn (To Jules Dupré)7
The river slowly flows. Beside the bank,
Its waters murmur round old alder stumps,
Tinted blood-red; tall yellow poplars
Cast their golden leaves among the paler reeds.
The light wind weaves its moving net —
Bright silver wrinkles, leaving those dark spots
In which the trees droop cones and canopies,
Trembling as if shaken by a host of birds.
From time to time, a thrush’s thin repeated cry,
And plunging from an overhanging bough,
A jewel sparkles in the clear blue air;
A sharp call draws out its strident note;
The kingfisher, speeding on burning wing,
A furtive streak of emerald and fire.
Setting sun (To Emile Breton)8
Vaporous, ceaselessly shifting sea of mist,
Where shrouded slopes, broad billows, undulate,
Villages, like lost black isles,
Emerge, their brown feet sunk in the foam.
As all falls quiet, expands, floats, smokes,
As only the slow cowbells sound, deep in the ravines,
As scattered points of light, lantern-like,
Flicker, the sky shimmers and lights up all as one.
Our silent globe, under the crimson dome,
Prays and dreams, dazzled by the glory
Of the fruitful star, censed by the clouds.
Encompassed by this awe, o’ercome by god-like sleep,
A red orb set in a great aureole,
Gravely, slowly, sets the sun.
Oft would I watch, my elbows on the sill,
The girls returning from the spring at noon.
Yvonne would come in view, distinguished from afar
By her proud bearing and tall shapeliness.
And what a pleasing sight it was, by Jove!
To see her, pitcher on her head,
Her coif flying like a lovebird’s crest,
And soft blue petticoat flutt’ring in the wind.
And with what grace, letting her humble shawl
Fall in brave folds that floated in the breeze,
Would she stretch out her arm to hold, russet
Against her pale-skinned brow, her earthen amphora!
How pure her features! Something sour
Yet charming played about her untamed lip;
She was indeed the daughter of the shore,
Strong, as if drenched by the exhalations of the sea.
In the streets, loud with coarse taunts and cries,
Where cringing, scrawny dogs pay court to one another,
Among the litter swept from many a yard,
In gutters, with their turquoise sky-reflecting pools,
About this town, hugging its grey and chalky walls,
I think I see her still — tall, one hand on her hip,
Letting no single drop fall from her brimming urn —
Pass gravely by, without a backward glance.
When in the ripened field the ears of corn are still,
When under the sun’s blaze the wheat makes crackling sounds,
And the poppy droops languidly
Under the slight burden of its scarlet crown,
And all the birds have ceased to sing;
The lazy ringdoves, sleepy on the blackest branch,
Deep in the woods’ heart, murmur no more,
Far from the silent sun that sets the fields on fire.
And meanwhile in the corn, the brave cicadas
A chorus thousands strong, summer’s marching brass,
Madly and with never a pause have chafed
Their wings against their wild cymbals’ bronze.
Vibrating, upright on the long wheat-ears,
Virtuosi, doomed ere summer’s season ends,
Heavenward raise their thrumming hymn
That echoes down the darkness of the nights.
But nothing now will still their tireless cries;
Banished from the oats or from the wheat
They’ll find a new home in the burnt-out bush
That dies of thirst in parched and sandy wastes.
On leafless shrubs and withered thistle-flowers
That let their white and silky tresses fly away,
You’ll see the insect, with its powerful head,
Still drunkenly exulting as it sings.
Until that moment when, spreading out its ragged wing,
Frustrated, burning with an ever purer flame,
Its bronze eye fixed upon the distant blue,
It expires, singing, on the dried-out stem.
Evening (To Louis Cabat)11
A simple ditch, lost beneath the leaves
And in an alder thicket almost hid away;
A passing insect scribes a little wake,
Traced lightly on the sleeping mirror’s face.
Eventide, the hour when miracles are wrought,
Transfiguration turns everything to gold,
Offering a wondrous vision to enraptured eyes,
The humble ditch gleams brighter than a hoard.
The dazzling sky, filtered through the boughs,
Has plunged a ray deep into the waters black;
Falling on every side, white sparks
Surround a crucible of pale and liquid gold.
Mysterious, peaceful beyond words, on its banks we see
The pallid flowers with their sleepy heads,
Reflected foliage, a dark and mingled mass,
And purple trees that seem to grow straight down.
Far off, lit from on high, patches of emerald
Suggest the shapes of brightly coloured fields,
And the sky, blazing with a hue so fiery,
And the low sun, flickering through the reeds.
And in my swelling breast – when I compare
The spot’s simplicity and its sublime aspect –
A holy rapture steals upon my soul,
And I glimpse something of the Maker’s work.
’Tis naught – and yet ’tis all. Creating nature,
God spreads abroad all its superb effects;
He feeds the fledgling and pours beauty forth
– blessing supreme – with an unstinting hand.
’Tis naught – and yet ’tis all. Seeing it, I forget –
Poor little ditch that thus affects me so –
My heart’s distress, my dreams of Italy,
And I feel better – and I bless my fate.
The two crosses12
Beside a road somewhere in Pontcroix we see,
Open to the sky, brand new, a pretentious cross
On which there gleams a Christ, daubed all in pink.
A few steps farther on – distorted, painful to behold,
Pitiful, discarded near a wall that’s overgrown with weeds,
A grotesque thigh-bone showing through the shade,
Its mutilated head hideously inclined,
Forgot among the nettles and the tangled briars –
The old Christ, faded, twisted out of shape.
The eternal Sufferer, he who soothes our pain,
His present state recalls the bitter agonies
Of all those noble hearts cast into obloquy;
And the leper, fleeing daylight’s curse,
The very beggar turns away his glance;
The poet loves him.... but the crowd that passes by
Has eyes for none but him who
Spreads wide aloft his arms, haloed in gold.
Though crucified, his setting must be fine;
To him be incense, holy vows, and prayers.
The other, on the pebbly ground, naught but a piece of stone.
And yet what heart would not be moved!
The wall was broken, and Christ filled up the rift!
The drain beside the road exhales its foetid breath
On his beloved feet, those the Magdalen bathed.
Thou whose crime was but in spreading love,
When, to punish thee, Pilate and Caiaphas one day
Placed on thy head the crown of thorns,
O Christ, whom with his child-like hands –
His rude and clumsy chisel by his love refined –
A peasant carved from this hard block,
Did’st thou believe oblivion Would dare to throw thee into a wall’s dark cleft,
Or, final insult, that the disrespectful scrub
Would mix upon thy brow that blesses and that bleeds
The bramble’s prickle with the granite spine?
Twilight (To Charles Daubigny)13
The anemone and the buttercup
Have closed their satin flowers;
Lo, evening comes; twilight
Reveals the garden in its ideal form.
All is drowsy – the very breeze
Is drunk with scents,
And colours are rendered exquisite
In evening’s rich and dusky tones.
When nature rests,
Weary of daylight’s brilliance,
It opens up its soul, and then the rose,
Sleeping in the shade, becomes more fragrant still.
And our soul, too, awakens,
Our senses are appeased;
When empty noises reach the ear
They harass us no more.
God grows discreet, and casts a veil
Over superfluous ornament;
Things grow larger – there’s the evening star –
Diamonds fill the sky.
The pale and diffuse light
Makes magical each solid form,
Outlines appear, Traced with a thread of gold.
Mystery drives away the commonplace,
All hangs suspended on the odorous air,
And the gleam of an apotheosis
Glows from lovers’ brows.
What coolness indescribable,
Pearly-grey and amethyst,
Falls from on high upon the sand,
Beside the scorched and withered grass.
A ray runs across the murky shade,
Plunges, and expires within the depths,
Fragmenting, sending up once more
Its living heat.
The flowers whisper quietly to themselves,
Floating in air intangible;
Show here and there a feathery tip of red,
The final struggle of the waning fire.
On bushes, emerald greens
Have a subdued intensity.
The farther depths are dim; warm vapours
Float through a vast emptiness.
Beyond, the tops of maple trees,
In sky suffused with opal and with gold;
Full of a gorgeous tenderness,
The infinite trembles, palpitates.
O, close your flower, buttercup,
Lover of noontime’s brilliant light,
So that you cannot see, at eventide,
The day becoming one with night.
On the plain14
For me the fields, for me the rows of corn,
For me the hillsides shrouded all in mist,
The reaper-women’s weather-beaten heads
At evening, gathered round their lighted fires!
For me the white-hot furrow,
Where noonday scorches the cricket’s wing
For me – when birds are singing
In a sea of green – the poppies
With their drooping heads, vermilion.
For me – far from your idle, self-important hearts,
– for me the vast and boundless plain
When fire’s lascivious tongue licks round its rim,
Making it writhe in a demented dance.
Return from the fields (To François Millet)15
’Tis that uncertain hour in which the evening star,
Still pale against the pale night sky,
Appears, twinkles, slips behind a veil,
Tiring the watcher’s searching gaze.
’Twixt wheat and vetch,
With dusty thistles lined,
The tawny path still can be descried
Among the fertile fields.
From high above, ineffable,
Amethyst-coloured light caresses it
And the artist, for want of other word,
Can only call it purple.
Across the flat or gently sloping mead,
Losing their furrows, finding them again,
It winds among the grass, where sounds
The cricket’s shrill and reedy song.
By banks gilded by eventide it goes
Under the clear air
Through which is heard the church bell’s sonorous note,
Tolling in silent village streets.
The peasant twice browned
By the twilight and suntan,
Forehead bathed in the pale light,
Makes his way home, his labour done.
Bearing on his shoulder scythe or spade,
Slowly he goes,
Moistening his dry chest
With mist, and with the scent of wheat.
Slowly he goes, at his unhurried pace,
With calm and heavy tread;
The west, like a furnace smouldering,
Turns him a deep and fiery bronze.
Beneath his cottage’s black roof,
Where rises a faint blue strand of smoke,
There glows a spot of red;
The soup is singing on the fire.
His partner’s strong and firm,
The children thrive,
Old age approaches – what is its sting,
Set beside childhood’s gay springtime?
Thus he plods from habit long ingrained,
Thus will he plod until his dying day;
Content if through his humble toil
The wheat is heavy and the barley fair.